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William Shakespeare: THE COMPLETE WORKS, edited by Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, S. Schoenbaum (Oxford University: $90; 1,250 pp.)

March 15, 1987|Robert N. Watson | Watson in the author of "Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition" (Harvard University Press).

Assembling a volume called "William Shakespeare: The Complete Works" is a tricky job, because there is so much archeology--and subjectivity--involved in deciding which works, and which versions of those works, to include. The new single-volume Oxford Shakespeare is a bold and often brilliant experiment in editing, but readers may not want to be subjects of an experiment, particularly not one so widely viewed by other experts in the field as the work of mad scientists. Disguised as a standard compilation of the works, this is actually a fist shaken, or at least a nose thumbed, at the forces of traditional Shakespeare editing. Beneath the reassuring imprimatur of Oxford, the editors have assembled a document so radically different from most collections of Shakespeare's works--so bizarrely different, at moments--that those who rely on it will sometimes find themselves cut off from the Shakespeare known by most others, and cut off even from the centuries of critical knowledge about those works.

For example, in any conversation of criticism concerning Shakespeare's "Henry IV" plays, one is certain to hear often the name of Sir John Falstaff, the irrepressible fat knight at the comic heart of the works, one of Shakespeare's most famous and beloved creations. In the Oxford version of "Henry IV, Part One," one hears that name not at all, because the editors have changed it to Sir John Oldcastle, on the grounds that Shakespeare apparently started to call the character that, but changed the name (in productions and in all surviving printed versions of the play) when the influential family of the historical Oldcastle brought pressure on him. This eccentricity of the Oxford volume seems misguided, even arrogant: The name everyone knows, the name Shakespeare accepted (and perhaps deeply integrated) into the only versions of the play we know, the name the Oxford editors themselves have felt compelled to accept for the same character in the three sequels, is Falstaff.

Elsewhere there are useful updatings of character names to facilitate proper pronunciation (the tch sound of Petruccio rather than the k sound of Petruchio): but then what exactly is a reader to do with Glendwr, for the traditional Glendower ?

By and large, the Oxford editors have chosen to see the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, published by two members of his theater company seven years after his death, as reflecting Shakespeare's own final choices about the true and ideal form of the works (as opposed to the small single-play Quartos that usually appeared shortly after the play was first staged).

One result is that many classic passages from "Hamlet"--for example, all of the great "How all occasions do inform against me" soliloquy--are similarly relegated to afternotes, because they do not appear in the shorter, Folio version, which probably reflects cuts that were necessary to make this very long play fit the exigencies of Elizabethan stage production. Is isolating these segments of the play into a section of "Additional Passages" really a service to the reader?

Sometimes the editors go even further against the printed record in professing to read Shakespeare's mind. The epilogue of "Troilus and Cressida," which appears in both the Quarto and Folio versions of the play, is here relegated to a section of "Additional Passages," because the editors suspect that Shakespeare meant to omit it in the Folio version but somehow accidently left it in.

Conversely, lines that are nowhere to be found in any previous version of "Macbeth," and that the Oxford editors themselves acknowledge were not written by Shakespeare, are here added to that play.

There are other questionable additions. Readers may recall that one of the Oxford editors made a splash for himself in the press last year by claiming he had found a long-lost poem by Shakespeare: But among most Shakespeare scholars, that claim sank as quickly as it splashed, and readers may be misled by the casual assurances here that the poem--"Shall I Fly"--is a characteristic display of Shakespearean skill.

The volume also expands by printing as separate plays two slightly different versions of "King Lear," in response to a strong and interesting argument by a variety of recent critics that the Folio version is systematically (though only sporadically) different from the Quarto, which would mean that the usual editorial practice of mixing the versions conceals a deliberate process of revision, the creation of a discernibly new work.

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